The Smart Justice Network at Your Fingertips

(An edited version of this post, originally published here, is now located on Re-View From the Bench.)

Readers who know my background have asked when am I going to write about legal issues. I am not yet ready to do that, except in very particular circumstances. Instead, I would refer anyone who wants to know what is happening in the criminal justice system, and where it should be going, to the Smart Justice Network of Canada (SJNC).

The SJNC originated in June 2011, in response to the federal government’s “tough on crime” Bill C-10. It has evolved into a not-for-profit organization with a Board of Governors and a Chairing Group consisting of people from across the country with wide experience in the criminal justice system. Their mandate is to promote discussion of what really works to foster crime prevention and justice, to explore the connections between crime and social conditions, increase collaboration between the criminal justice system and other sectors with proven successful interventions, and encourage adopting new approaches. They represent years of experience in the criminal justice system, and promote the best research and thinking now available about criminal justice issues, both in Canada and abroad. SJNC is affiliated with no political party, but received some initial seed funding, from two Catholic religious congregations, for their first webpage. Lorraine Berzins, a veteran justice policy analyst with 14 earlier years’ experience in the federal corrections system, edits the current SJNC website. It provides news, articles of more long-term interest, and more detailed information on the group’s history and mandate, plus information about many of the leading participants.

Apart from the webpage, volunteer retiree Michael Maher edits an email newsletter which reviews the current scene from a broad range of sources. He monitors the internet for articles dealing with criminal justice and justice in the broader community sense. He keeps current on a further network of research and publication centres doing related work. And people in the network send him material they think of interest. He then sends out this SJNC newsletter to anyone who signs up to receive it, as email. Already, he has a mailing list of 350 made up of retired judges, crowns, public defenders, lawyers, social justice activists, advocacy groups, academics, law schools, politicians, faith-based groups, and groups involved in restorative justice initiatives.

The latest edition, which appeared in my email inbox last Friday, gives internet links to a variety of stories on current legal issues. A list of the titles is typical and topical. Mary Agnes Welch writes in the Winnipeg Free Press on the concerns about the appointment of former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench. Jeffery Simpson writes in the Globe and Mail asking “with so many critics, how can the Fair Elections Act be fair?” Alex Boutilier writes in the Toronto Star on the negative impact of the federal Department of Justice imposing a lifetime gag order on their employees and other government bureaucrats. A recent Ontario Human Rights Commission Report on police use of force and mental health covers use of tasters, policies and procedures, data collection, crisis intervention teams, provincial use of force guidelines and includes recommendations for improvement. There is a research report from the state of Victoria in Australia showing how the “crime crackdown leads to a booming…prison population.” Another report done in New Hampshire shows that “walkable” neighbourhoods increase community commitment. There are references to two other stories out of the United States, one on minimum sentences in Indiana, the other about federal appeals court rulings clarifying rights in deportation rules.

The beauty of the SJNC newsletter is that the editor does a brief précis of items of interest and then provides the link for readers to follow up as they choose. The perspective reflects the best thinking in criminological circles and provides readers with resources from which to evaluate current government “law and order” policies and other actions in the legal sector. To join the Smart Justice Network distribution list, send your email address to I highly recommend it.

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